We’re great at … mediocrity!

You’re forgiven if your initial reaction to the title above was “Do I really want to read this?” But read it you must.

I’ve just finished reading an article on Europe which emphasizes that their financial crisis is far from over. Yes, there’s a degree of stability now, but the economic contraction continues. There is no let-up in the desperate unemployment rate, especially among the young, and no agreement as to who will pay the debts of those countries and banks which need such help. You see, the problem is that most of Europe is fundamentally uncompetitive.

So is Atlantic Canada.

Show me a successful person and I’ll show you someone who believes in him or herself. The same goes for successful companies. We Atlantic Canadians love living in this part of the world. Unfortunately, this makes us so content with the status quo that we rarely feel any need to change. Those who do sense a need for reform often lack the confidence to make it happen. How often have you observed the respect automatically conferred on those “from away” compared to the disdain for locally-made ideas and innovation? It’s those attitudes which, unchallenged, will get us in trouble—the same sort of trouble that Europe is facing.

It is an incontrovertible fact that our demographics are the worst in the country. This means our health care costs will continue to rocket upwards absent serious change and it ominously means the working age population is shrinking relative to the retiring segment. Put another way, that segment of the population which is dependent is growing while the segment supporting that dependency is shrinking. The only way to solve that problem is through immigration. But polling on the subject suggests we are nervous about immigration. We can’t be. Certainly it should be targeted to the educated, to entrepreneurs, to those with skilled trades, to anyone with a great work ethic. But we have to stop playing with this notion and seriously adopt a strategy to recruit talented immigrants.

Our public school education system is average. There is no goal, no program to try and be the best in the country at any one subject or area. Is there something wrong with being ambitious? Are our children stupid? Our teachers not up to the challenge? Is our system incapable of excellence? What would be wrong with aiming to have the best math or science or other program in the country?

Our health care system is great once you get through the front door; it’s getting through that door which is the crisis. Everyone understands the need for change but we seem incapable of it. I continually meet very impressive professionals who work in the system. Their frustration is palpable. We simply can’t continue to support the infrastructure which now exists and we need to start by admitting such stark realities so that money and focus can go towards improving access. It’s time we understood the health care system needs to be run like a business with an emphasis on efficiency, cost control and customer satisfaction.

Our university infrastructure is similarly over-capitalized. We suffer from too many buildings spread over too many campuses. The global university system is about to undergo radical change as online and distance education takes over market share. What are we going to do about that?

Think about it: What would you rather do? Learn from the best and get a degree from a world-class university with a huge brand name? Or go to a local college which most of the world has never heard of and whose professoriate is (sorry) not among the world’s best? Should we not have a plan to figure out where/how we can be world class and focus our limited resources there? The good news is that these opportunities exist, if we have the courage and determination to go after them.

A highlight for me is our young and start-up business community. These folks blow me away with their ideas and their ambition—they have a huge amount of energy. And it’s cause for celebration because they believe in themselves. I hope this attitude can permeate the community so we can start believing in ourselves and build an Atlantic Canada that makes us, and more importantly our young people, proud.

John Risley
About John Risley

John Risley, president of Clearwater Fine Foods Inc., regularly engages in policy debate as a member of the World Presidents' Organization, the Chief Executives Organization and as a director on the Board of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

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